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Transformation through the Word

Last week I made the point that discipleship, which is the mission Christ gave his church, involves more than (though no less than) data transmission. The primary reason I believe this is true is because the kind of spiritual transformation we’re after happens by means of the living and active Word of God, and God’s Word does not merely transmit data. Let me explain.

God’s inspired Word is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). The sufficient Word has given those ordinary means of grace that, through their regular use, will shape believers to live as disciples who observe everything Jesus taught: reading the Word (1 Tim 4:13), preaching the Word (2 Tim 4:2), singing the Word (Col 3:16, Eph 5:19), prayer (1 Tim 2:1), giving (1 Cor 16:2), baptism (Matt 28:19), and the Lord’s Table (1 Cor 11:23–32). The regular, disciplined use of these means of grace progressively forms believers into the image of Jesus Christ; these Spirit-ordained elements are the means through which Christians “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [them], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12–13).

This very recognition that the Word of God has ultimate power for transformation supports an understanding of discipleship as more than didactic, for the Scriptures themselves are rarely merely didactic. The problem is that a didactic conception of discipleship has led to viewing the Scriptures as merely a collection of didactive propositions meant to inform the mind. Yet this is clearly not the case. The Bible is a work of literature employing a vast variety of aesthetic devices to communicate what could not be otherwise.

The Holy Spirit of God inspired every word in the original autographs of Scripture. This implies that while the word choices, grammar, syntax, poetic language, and literary forms were products of the human author’s writing style, culture, and experiences, we must also affirm that these aspects of the form of Scripture are exactly how God desired his truth to be communicated for the formation of his people. Kevin Vanhoozer is helpful here:

It has been said . . . that poetry is “the best words put in the best order.” Similarly, because we are dealing with the Bible as God’s Word, we have good reason to believe that the biblical words are the right words in the right order.1

Leland Ryken expresses it this way:

We can rest assured that the Bible as it was written is in the form that God wants us to have. . . . If the writers of the Bible were at some level guided and even ‘carried along’ by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), it is a logical conclusion that the Holy Spirit moved some biblical authors to write poetry, others to imagine prophetic visions, and so forth. The very forms of biblical writing are inspired.2

It is critically important to recognize that truth in Scripture is more than merely scientific fact statements. Christianity cannot be boiled down into a set of doctrinal propositions. The Bible contains many statements of theological fact, much of its content can be summarized in theological propositions, and doctrinal affirmations remain important for defining various aspects of biblical orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, God cannot be known fully through mere statements of theological fact. God is known through his Word, and his Word is more than a collection of fact statements. It is inspired literature that employs aesthetic devices of the imagination to communicate God to us in ways that would not be possible with only fact statements. Since God is a spirit and does not have a body like man, since he is infinite, eternal, and totally other than us, God chose to use particular aesthetic forms to communicate truth about himself that would not have been possible otherwise. These aesthetic forms are essential to the truth itself since God’s inspired Word is exactly the best way that truth could be presented.

Thus, the truths of Scripture are not Scripture’s propositional content that just happens to be contextualized in certain aesthetic forms. Truth in Scripture is content plus form, considered as an indivisible whole. As Clyde S. Kilby notes, these aesthetic forms of Scripture are not merely decorative but part of the essential presentation of the Bible’s truth: “We do not have truth and beauty, or truth decorated with beauty, or truth illustrated by the beautiful phrase, or truth in a ‘beautiful setting.’ Truth and beauty are in the Scriptures, as indeed they must always be, an inseparable unity.”3 To reduce God’s truth, then, only to doctrinal statements does great injustice to the way God himself has chosen to reveal truth to us.

But there is a reason the Bible calls God a “king” rather than simply asserting the doctrinal fact of his rulership. There is a reason the Bible calls God a shepherd, fortress, father, husband, and potter rather than simply stating the ideas underlying these metaphors. These images of God paint a picture that goes far beyond mere doctrinal accuracy. They communicate something that could not be expressed in mere prose. They form our imagination of who God is for the purpose of both expressing and shaping right affections for God, which as we have seen is at the core of Christian discipleship. The form of God’s truth forms Christian disciples.

Any good text or seminary course on biblical interpretation gives some attention to the fact that the Bible comes to us in various literary forms. However, while exegetes give lip service to the aesthetic aspects of Scripture, at best they often acknowledge the literary forms as a means to aid them in drawing out what they believe to be the more important “propositional content” of the text. They view the form as something they have to “get through” in order to “get to” the revelatory content and then “restate symbols and metaphors in terms of univocal statements.”4 That didactic theological content, they believe, is what transforms believers. With this view, understanding what the literary form communicated to the original audience is important for interpretation, but not much more. The aesthetic forms do not influence discipleship, they do not impact the way Scripture is read or preached—every sermon is structured as if the text were epistolary, unveiling the assumption once again that discipleship happens merely with didactic instruction.

What this betrays is a post-Enlightenment, modernistic understanding of the nature of truth and human knowing and in effect denies the authority of what God inspired. As Kevin Vanhoozer notes, I think, correctly, “Evangelicals have been quick to decry the influence of modernism on liberal theology but not to see the beam of modern epistemology in their own eye.”5 Ryken similarly observes, “It is one thing to recognize that parts of the Bible are literature. It is quite another actually to approach those texts in a literary manner.”6 This perspective, Ryken insists, fails to recognize that “everything that is communicated in a piece of writing is communicated through the forms in which it is embodied.”7

And therefore, if we wish to make disciples who will observe all that Christ has commanded, then we must recognize that this happens through more than condensing correct doctrinal statements from God’s Word; rather, Scripture embodies particular sentiments, affections, moods, and imagination through its God-inspired aesthetic forms, which are essential for the cultivation of Christian virtue.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 48, no. 1 (2005): 96, 100. []
  2. Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 129–30. Emphasis original. []
  3. [1] Clyde S. Kilby, Christianity and Aesthetics (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1961), 21. []
  4. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 87. []
  5. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 26. []
  6. Leland Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993), 20. []
  7. Ryken, Words of Delight, 20. []